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By Stuart Woods and Jason Spencer
July 7, 2011
5:41 PM

Filed under News

Publishers brace for uncertainty as Indigo introduces new returns policy

With Indigo Books & Music planning big changes to its bricks-and-mortar retail operation, publishers are bracing for an uncertain fall.

Indigo has made clear it intends to transition to a new product mix that includes more giftware, toys, and lifestyle products, with less shelf space reserved for books. At a vendor-relations meeting last week, the chain also informed suppliers that it is evaluating returns on a shorter timeframe, meaning some books are likely to spend less time in stores.

Longstanding industry precedent allows publishers to refuse returns on orders less than 90 days old. According to sources familiar with the matter, Indigo now says it intends to evaluate a book’s sales after 45 days, with returns for underperforming titles potentially following soon after.

Publishers fear the quick turnaround time isn’t enough to allow low-profile titles to catch on. “It takes time to get attention for your books,” explains Erin Creasey, chair of the Association of Canadian Publishers’ trade committee. “You try to time things as best you can, but there’s lots of trickle down.”

Moreover, many houses plan their fall seasons assuming that titles published in September will still be in stores during the run-up to the holidays. Publishers may be forced to push back pub dates, and rethink the timing of their publicity efforts and author tours, to ensure their books are still available when customers are in stores.

Cormorant Books publisher and co-owner Marc Côté isn’t willing to budge when it comes to pushing back pub dates – “it’s not fair to the authors,” he says. But he is concerned that the shortened returns period could lead to greater inefficiencies in the supply chain.

For instance, Côté says, if a spring title that hasn’t sold well is subsequently nominated for a fall literary prize, would Indigo be forced to reorder it? “At what cost to everybody, including the environment?” Côté asks.

Others worry what impact the changes could have on Canadian publishers, who may be forced to look to other channels to market less commercial offerings.

Arsenal Pulp Press associate publisher Robert Ballantyne admits he’s “looking ahead with concern,” but says it’s still too early to speculate about Indigo’s new product mix. However, he is concerned that backlist titles of literary works, which he describes as the “core of the Canadian publishing world,” will be “at risk of disappearing from Canadian bookshelves.”

“[Indigo] wouldn’t announce a policy specifically targeting any category, but how they turn their floor space into 50 per cent non-books without losing key titles ... is [an important] question,” he says.

The changes come after Indigo overhauled its co-op program earlier this year, effectively cutting publishers out of the equation when it comes to selecting what titles receive prime in-store placement. ACP executive director Carolyn Wood worries that this policy, in conjunction with the shortened display periods, will become a “self-fulfilling cycle” that points to “a future of blockbusters and little else at Indigo.”

“The diversity of titles will not be there in bricks and mortar,” Wood says. “It will surely narrow the range of books that sell through.”

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